Greenwich Council sign
Greenwich should become a borough of sanctuary, the Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network said

Greenwich Council should offer free school meals to all children to help improve the lives of migrants and refugees, a charity which deals with refugees in the borough has told councillors.

The Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network, which runs the Migrant Hub at Woolwich Common Community Centre, which is partially funded by the council among other organisations, said more help was needed to help migrants and asylum-seekers borough break out of a cycle of destitution, where people are overwhelmed by the costs of applying to stay in the UK because they cannot get secure employment or claim benefits, with many not knowing about the rights they do have.

Of the 50 people it sees at its hub each week, half are defined as “destitute” – they do not have access to adequate accommodation or they cannot meet their essential living needs now or within the next 14 days, the charity said. Many are women escaping violence, while mental health problems are widespread. The hub offers hot meals, advice and support.

The charity, which operates across south London, was addressing councillors on the housing and anti-poverty scrutiny panel on its work. El Harrison, the hub’s co-ordinator, said in a report that there were a number of steps the council could take – such as introducing free school meals for all children as part of a package of measures to become a “borough of sanctuary”.

Some groups going through the immigration system are deemed by central government as having “no recourse for public funds” (NRPF) – denying them access to most social security benefits, and shifting responsibility for their needs onto local councils.

Lewisham Council recently declared itself a borough of sanctuary, and last week passed a motion to ensure that children who are deemed as having no recourse for public funds will get free school meals.

Harrison told councillors: “The idea comes from the cities of sanctuary movement, which began in the UK in Sheffield. It’s not that you have a council of sanctuary, you have multiple organisations within an area individually and collectively trying to change the culture.”

She added that Lewisham had recently stopped having an embedded Home Office official in its team dealing with NRPF families – but Greenwich still had an immigration officer present, funded by the council, when such families came to see help, which they often found intimidating and distressing.

Harrison said there were other ways that councils could check on people’s immigration status. “There’s no legal duty to have an immigration officer, and there’s only a minority of councils that do have one,” she said.

“Lewisham got rid of theirs earlier this year, Southwark have, Newham, Haringey and Islington too,” Harrison added.

Harrison said that the service cost £47,000 per year to run at a “bare minimum” – but spending an extra £30,000 to pay for an immigration worker would help people clear up their immigration status more quickly and “break the cycle of destitution”.

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